This Day In History: July 17

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On July 17, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and a time of unparalleled racial tensions in the United States, the nation loses one of the last towering figures of the civil rights movement. John Lewis, former Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and a 17-term congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District, dies at the age of 80.

Born to two sharecroppers in rural Alabama, Lewis preached his first sermon at the age of 15, met Martin Luther King, Jr. at the age of 18, and was ordained as a Baptist minister before attending college at Nashville’s Fisk University. Inspired by King, he quickly became a leader of the Nashville desegregation movement, organizing sit-ins and boycotts—which he called “good trouble, necessary trouble”—and getting arrested numerous times. 

Lewis was one of the very first Freedom Riders—activists who refused to follow the rules while traveling through the South on segregated buses—and made repeated Freedom Rides despite being badly beaten and arrested on multiple occasions. After becoming Chairman of SNCC, of which he was a founding member, in 1963, he took a leading role in organizing a number of civil rights actions, including the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches. During the latter march, a policeman fractured Lewis’ skull as law enforcement attacked a group of protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The assault, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” opened the eyes of many across America to the brutal behavior of police in the South. In the years since, many have suggested renaming the bridge after Lewis.

Lewis continued to work in voter education and community organizing until 1981, when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he ran for Congress, where he would represent a district that included most of Atlanta for the rest of his life. Though sometimes referred to as a “partisan” Democrat, he often took positions that set him to the left of the party’s establishment. Lewis was an early advocate of gay rights, opposed both the Gulf War and the War in Iraq, sided against the popular Democratic President Bill Clinton on welfare reform and the North America Free Trade Agreement, and refused to attend President George W. Bush’s inauguration on the grounds that Bush’s claim to victory was not valid. In his first term in Congress, Lewis introduced a bill to create a national museum of African American history and remained dedicated to this cause, despite decades of resistance from Republican legislators, until the museum opened on the National Mall in 2016.

As news broke of his death from pancreatic cancer, tributes to Lewis poured in from all across the country, with many celebrating his lifetime of activism and his support of the protests against police violence which largely defined the summer of 2020. His casket traveled from Troy, Alabama, where his rejection from the local college prompted his first correspondence with King, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then to Washington, where it lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. In a New York Times op-ed written shortly before his death and published the day of his funeral, Lewis cited the recent killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, expressed his admiration for the Black Lives Matter movement, and urged the generations that followed him to have the courage to speak out against injustice, to participate in democracy, and to “let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”